Written in the Land: Rock Art in Australia’s Arnhem Land

“Our story is in the land.
It is written in those sacred places.”
— Bill Neidjie

Hand Stencil Rock Art

I gaze in wonder at the faded handprint on a rock cave wall here at Nourlangie, in Australia’s Arnhem Land. Who was the ancient aboriginal painter who signed his rock art in this unique way?

His right hand has been placed palm down against the rock surface with his fingers spread. A stream of red ochre paint was blown from his mouth onto the back of his hand to produce this stencil image. Part of the image of his index finger has been eroded, as have several of his other paintings on the walls of this rock gallery.

Early aboriginal people had no written language and their laws, cultural beliefs and creation myths were preserved through stories, dances, songs and paintings. Their long history of environmental and social change is found here in more than 5,000 rock art sites. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of over 25,000 years of Aboriginal occupation within this area, and Kakadu’s rock art (gunbim) represents the longest historical record of any group of people in the world.

Kakadu National Park is a vast and timeless place―a landscape of exceptional natural beauty and diversity. I love its stillness and intense colours. There are many regions here: mangrove-fringed coastal areas blend into expansive flood plains; low-lying hills are flanked by tall sandstone escarpments to the east and are interwoven between open bush woodlands and forest habitats. The park is teeming with wildlife in its waters, on the land and in the air. With the daily passing of the sun overhead and the changing of the seasons, the land also assumes constantly shifting forms and colours. In this context a knowledge and appreciation of nature is fundamental to understanding the culture of Kakadu and its people.

Mimih spirits Rock Art

The Mimi spirits are fairy-like beings of Arnhem Land in the folklore of the indigenous people of northern Australia. Westerners would equate them with elementals and nature spirits. They are depicted as having thin and elongated bodies―so thin as to be in danger of breaking in case of a high wind. To avoid this fate, the Mimis spend much of their time living in rock crevices. As creation spirits, they are like humans but exist in a different dimension. It was the Mimis who first taught the people how to hunt, cook and paint.

Ochre was the most valuable painting material used traditionally by the people. Red ochre was available for mining from many sites, from crumbly to hard in texture rock, heavily coloured by iron oxide. The rock was washed, then pounded into a pigment powder and blended with water, saliva, orchid sap or turtle egg yolks to create a sticky fluid paint. When a deeper ceremonial red colour was desired, kangaroo blood was mixed into the pigment. Red ochre was particularly important as its use symbolized the blood of ancestral beings.

Ochre also comes in a variety of hues from yellow to dark reddish-brown and these ores lend a rich, warm colour to the traditional rock paintings. Charcoal provided black pigment, pipe clay―a fine white river clay―was worked and moulded into small blocks to make white pigment. Thus haematite (red), limonite (yellow), charcoal (black), and pipe clay (white), expanded the artist’s palette. Ochre was also traded extensively across Australia, the precious commodity travelling many hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from where it was mined, to where it was used.

The traditional materials were applied in several ways. The oldest included blowing a fine spray of paint from the mouth to produce stencils or silhouettes on the rock’s surface. Paint was also applied directly to the rock by brushing it with a small crushed stick. Bodies were also painted using leaves, fingers and hands to beautify and decorate the participants for important ceremonial dances and songs.

In Arnhem Land bark and wood surfaces were also painted with great care using various brushes and styles for different effects. After covering a background with a coat of red ochre, the main forms of the design were outlined in black, yellow or white by using a brush made from a stick with fine grass or fibres tied to the end. Next a distinctive cross-hatched pattern is produced with a special fine brush made from a stick tipped with human hair tightly bound to it. The final step filled in the cross-hatched areas with white ochre, again using the hair tipped brush. The figure below is of Nabulwinjbulwinj, (nabul-win-bul-win) a dangerous and malevolent ghost spirit who ate women after striking them dead with a yam.


Because of its great age rock art can be damaged by natural processes. Rangers do what they can to remove or redirect these events by building boardwalks and handrails to prevent visitors from touching or rubbing the paintings. Silicon drip lines redirect water flow away from the paintings while the boardwalks prevent dust from becoming stirred up and coating valuable art. Occasionally a contemporary aboriginal artist, using traditional brushes and ochres, will repaint early art works to prevent them from fading. Just before his death in 1964, Nayombolmi, also known as ‘Barramundi Charlie,’ repainted the following magnificent group picture.

several rock art images

The large figure at the top is that of Namondjok, (nar-mon-jock). He is a Creation Ancestor who now lives in the sky and can be seen only at night when he appears as a dark spot in the Milky Way.

To the right of Namondjok is Namarrgon, (narm-arr-gon) the Lightning Man. He creates the violent lightning storms that begin in November, during the north Australian monsoon season. The band around him from his left ankle, joining his hands and head, and down to his right ankle represents the lightning he creates.

Below him and to the left is Barrginj, (barr-jeen) Namarrrgon’s wife, painted in white with black outline and decoration. Beneath these three Creation Ancestors is a large group of men and women elaborately dressed and possibly on their way to a ceremony. Several women have dashes painted across their breasts indicating that they are breastfeeding.

Images both sacred and secular adorn the many caves here at Nourlangie Rock, often represented through the artist’s unusual perspective that views the images from above, while looking down on them. Painters from this area show a preference for open spaces with a concentration on the main figures where there is an expression of suddenly arrested motion.

Language, ceremonies, kinship and caring for the land are aspects of cultural responsibility that have been passed from one generation to the next. Aboriginals all believe that they do not own the land―rather the land owns them―thus the land and its people have always been linked. This spiritual connection, spanning tens of thousands of years, has been recognized globally in Kakadu’s World Heritage listing, which honours one of the oldest living societies on earth.

“Our land has a big story.
Sometimes we tell a little bit at a time.
Come and hear our stories and see our land.
A little bit might stay in your hearts and if you want more
You can come back.”

—Jacob Nayinggul
(Manilakarr Clan)

Written and photographed by Mary Mageau
Samford, Queensland, Australia (©2012 Mary Mageau)

Visit Mary’s Website: Nature As Art and Inspiration

Quotes sourced from Neidgie, B. (2002) Gagadiu Man, JB Books Pty. Ltd:
Marleston, p32.

Courtesy of Nayinggul, J. (2008) Kakadu National Park, Australian Government:
Canberra ACT, p6.

The Sunflower Way

closeup of golden sunflowers and blue skyWhenever the yen for discovery returns, it is time to be off again on a road trip. Not for us—the freeways with their endless lines of speeding traffic and sterile scenery. By choosing to explore an unfamiliar back road or byway, delightful and unexpected surprises often result.

The Queensland road between Warwick and Toowoomba is usually a busy highway. While searching for an alternate route, we discovered a 50 kilometre stretch taking us from Warwick to Allora. Since this lovely little town is only a stone’s throw away from Toowoomba, our newly found road, the Sunflower Way, proved irresistible. At Warwick we entered it via Victoria Street, turned right into Rosehill Road, and followed the signs to Allora. This was a perfect choice!

A patchwork countryside of ploughed black soil, green lucerne, and brick-red sorghum delighted us. But it was the fields of golden sunflowers in full bloom that provided a magnificent sight, even in late March at the end of the sunflower cycle. Drifts of deep yellow fields stretched as far as we could see.

Sunflowers are majestic, towering over most people’s heads, and they grow best in full sunshine. The seeds are sold as a snack food or as a component of a bird seed package. Sunflower oil, extracted directly from the seeds, creates inexpensive cooking oil and is also an additive to biodiesel fuel. After the seeds have been processed, the remaining cake becomes healthy livestock feed.

The name, Sunflower (helianthus annuus), possesses only one large flower head, sitting atop a tall unbranched stem. It may have derived its name from the blooming yellow gold head, which resembles the sun. A number of fields had already been harvested with their brilliant flower heads gone and the stalks standing alone – like solitary sentinels. These will finally whither and fall, waiting to be ploughed back into the soil as green manure. Thankfully enough fields remained in all their blazing glory to make our drive along the Sunflower Way a memorable one.

When we reached the township of Allora we explored its historic streets. These feature buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, together with lovingly tended gardens and parks. The area also offers an opportunity to visit the heritage listed, ‘Glengallan Homestead.’ Our drive was a delightful way to finally reach our destination of Toowoomba. If you find yourself here in high summer, its radiant fields of gold will take your breath away. Yet in any season this back road is a beauty, so be sure to put it on your bucket list and make time to enjoy the Sunflower Way.

Click here to visit Mary’s website of photography and writing: Nature as Art and Inspiration.

Photo by the author

The Carnival of Flowers

closeup of multicolored flowers
Toowoomba, one of Australia’s garden cities, is located west of Queensland’s capital city of Brisbane. A university and cathedral city, Toowoomba residents also enjoy its 150 spectacular parks and gardens. Situated high on the crest of the Great Dividing Range, with a cooler climate and rich volcanic soil, ‘Absolutely everything will grow here,’ say the locals.

closeup of bright flowers To savour the delights of the festival our first stop includes the magnificent grounds of The Laurel Bank Park. Here an incredible free-growing meadow has been planted. Visitors wander amongst the cacophony of colour as they stroll through tulips, daisies, pansies, and an arbour, festooned with lavender wisteria.

Our next stop at the Toowoowisteria arbor with purple flowersmba Regional Art Gallery, leads to a room where landscape and botanical paintings from the gallery’s collection have been hung. Scattered among the pictures are stunning sculptural floral works, created by members of the Toowoomba Ikebana Group. Decorated in the Japanese style, each piece showcases fresh flowers, leaves, and branches – all appearing in their natural and individual beauty.


orange flower arangement

After a tasty outdoor lunch and a strong coffee, we decide to spend the remainder of our day in the city’s heart. Here we plan to visit Queens Park, Toowoomba’s premier site. This key landmark is the focus for the 76th Carnival of Flowers, its Flower Market, the Food and Wine Festival, and a Live Concert Series. Many activities are happening here.

We enter the park through the lovely Cherry Blossom Walk into the great expanse of a 19th century Victorian park and botanical garden. It is styled as a parterre garden, presenting 
an arrangement of ornamental flower beds in various sizes, shapes, and colours. All are contained within a canopy of stately trees and areas of expansive green lawns.
hedgerows blooming in red and white

During the 2015 Carnival of Flowers, more than 100,000 visitors flocked to Toowoomba from far and wide. It was a delight to see so many return again this year, absorbing the beauty and peaceful ambience of the park. Cameras were working away in every pair of hands as the children roamed and played freely among the parterre beds. The weather was also kind as the day was warm and sunny. We finally left the park on a botanical high and next year we plan to do it all over again.

flower bed of red and whitecloseup of red and white flowers

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. … There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” ~ Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

long rows of flowers beds

Click here to visit Mary’s website: Nature as Art and Inspiration.

The Road to Coober Pedy

Austrailian desert landscapeA two lane road stretches ahead, more than 526 kilometres long, with only 2 comfort stops and hot food to be found between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy — the opal mining centre of South Australia. Empty fields of red, orange and reddish brown soils are occasionally dotted with tufts of spinifex grass and the ever present salt bush. Our timing was right on cue as we caught the salt bush in bloom, decorated with myriads of tiny white flowers. Its sage green cover appears to be dusted with splashes of silver when the salt bush is bathed in sunlight. Nature has created an unbelievable landscape to blanket this immense and dusty land. The colours here are intense. We are immersed in total silence.

Close-uyp of desert bushIn this primal bushland, drought never seems to break and those who have settled here only receive 10 – 12 inches of rain per annum. Occasionally short, stubby acacia trees reach their maximum height of 3 metres. In this primal bushland when a tree loses its leaves, only the desiccated trunk and branches remain. These ghostly sentinels silently guard the vast, barren landscape until they too finally collapse to litter the area. Underground water will seep up to form a pond or small lake that quickly evaporates, leaving only salt crystals behind.

As everything lies baking in the sun, is this landscape too monotonous to enjoy Desiccated tree in desertviewing for hours of travel? We don’t think so. When we leave the car for an occasional leg stretch or a photograph, to tread upon the rocks and bones of this land, we feel we are being transported back to the very beginning of time. Under the mesmerizingly beautiful, austere landscape, that weaves its spell to draw us in, we are only intruders in this most ancient country on earth.

Roadside view of desert

Click Here to visit Mary Mageau’s blog: Nature as Art and Inspiration
Photos by Mary Mageau. Photos and text ©Mary Mageau

Bones of the Earth

Granite boulders form an archIn Queensland’s Granite Belt all the bones of the earth are laid bare. Rock is everywhere — scattered in piles of rounded boulders, exposed in great slabs throughout ridges, creeks and forests, or appearing on bare domed mountains, soaring above the low lands and valleys. Here in the midst of an overpowering granite landscape the question begs to be asked, ‘Where did all this rock come from?’

Originally Stanthorpe granite was a molten mass of magma, thrust into the older surrounding rocks some 240 million years ago, during the early Triassic period. Deep below the surface it began to cool, allowing its minerals to solidify and grow into large crystals, still evident in the rocks today. Since then the slow process of erosion has exposed the granite to aeons of ongoing weather events.Weathered granite boulders

In the fresh rock surfaces, four mineral constituents can be plainly seen. Clear grains of quartz sparkle in the sun light, while pink and white feldspar crystals and black flakes of mica are sprinkled through the rocks like salt and pepper seasoning. As erosion slowly removes the great weight of rock above the land’s surface, stresses are released. These allow the granite to crack along fractures, particularly those located along major sheet joints, parallel to the surface. This action isolates large sheets of rock of varying thicknesses. As weathering and decomposition proceeds, this process eventually sculptures the sheets into rounded boulders or ‘tors.’

Tors: Rounded Granite boulders

Near Pozieres lies a tumble of these massive tors known as Donnelly’s Castle. Granite Boulders form a castlePiled helter-skelter into outlooks, caves and twisting corridors, this natural fortress sheltered Captain Thunderbolt, his outlaw gang and their horses for many years. The escaped convict freely roamed the New England Tablelands in the 1860s, evading capture through his prowess as a horseman and his intimate knowledge of the terrain. As we explore the rocky outcrop, we imagine him hiding in the caves or fleeing through a maze of passages.

The pristine beauty of this place with its stark shapes and forms will always remain a popular Australian destination. Here a visitor can marvel at the variety of nature’s distinct handiwork by experiencing the power and size of these magnificent bones of the earth.
Hiker stands by huge round boulder

Click Here to visit Mary Mageau’s blog: Nature as Art and Inspiration